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From the Mailbag

» 21 January 2014 » In nichibei, npb » 1 Comment

Update, February 8th: Reader Kevin W emailed me with an answer to this question… and here it is:

The film was made by Andrew Jenks (has gone on to bigger projects including multiple seasons of an MTV show), I spoke with him a few months back and asked if it would be released. His response: “@AndrewJenks: not for awhile man. We had clearance rights issue but one day…”


Loyal reader PG writes:

I was emailing you in regards to the subject of this email. Do you recall the documentary “The Zen of Bobby V”? I remember it airing on ESPN some ten years ago [ed. it was actually 2008] and really liked it, it was one of my first introductions to japanese baseball. Ever since I have always looked to find it on DVD or  the internet but have never been successful in tracking down anything more than a couple 2 min clips. Would you happen to have any more information about it? I really enjoy the site NPB tracker, really like the content, thanks again!

I have no idea how to get ahold of this video. If anyone knows, please leave a comment or email me (npbtracker@gmail.com).

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Rakuten’s Championship Roster

» 21 January 2014 » In npb » 3 Comments

In 2004, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles didn’t exist. The Kintetsu Buffaloes did, and after years in the red, the Kintetsu corporation decided to divest itself of it’s baseball operation. When no buyer could be found, Kintetsu’s management opted to merge with the neighboring Orix Blue Wave franchise, resulting in the contraction of the Kintetsu organization. Both the Osaka-based Kintetsu and the Kobe-based Orix were minnows in terms of fan base compared to the region’s beloved Hanshin Tigers, so some market contraction actually made sense.

But no one liked the idea of league contraction. The Orix-Kintetsu merger would leave an 11-team NPB, and there were talks of contracting another team and doing away with the two-league format. Fans held protests, Livedoor.com founder Takafumi Horie stepped in with an offer to buy the Buffaloes, and late in the season the players union held the first, and so far, only, strike in its history, refusing to play weekend games. It worked, and the owners agreed to allow an expansion franchise. By this time, Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani had gotten involved, and a hearing was held to decide whether Livedoor or Rakuten would be awarded the new franchise. The hearing panel chose Rakuten, citing its more stable business and ownership of the Vissel Kobe J-League soccer team. The Orix-Kintetsu merger proceeded as planned, with the resulting team to be known as the Orix Buffaloes.

And so the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were born, to begin play in 2005, based in Sendai in Japan’s Tohoku region (northern Honshu). The team would play in Miyagi Stadium, the 1970’s home of the Lotte Orions (now the Chiba Lotte Marines).

Eight years later, in 2013, the Eagles won their first NPB championship. So how’d they get there?

Rakuten started out with a roster of zero, and there was to be a surplus of players from the Orix-Kintetsu merger, so NPB held a dispersal draft of sorts. All of the players from the previous Orix and Kintetsu teams were placed into a pool, then the new Orix team was allowed to select 25 players all at once, in the first “round”. Then Rakuten could choose 20 players from the remainder of the pool. The Orix could choose another 20, and so on until all the players were assigned to a new team.

While the initial draft process was stacked in favor of Orix, it did yield two players who played in game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series for Rakuten: outfielders Toshiya Nakashima (from Orix) and Akihisa Makita (from Kintetsu). More notably, Kintetsu ace Hisashi Iwakuma refused to play for the merged team, and demanded a trade to Rakuten. The Eagles started off as kind of a literal embodiment of the common sports radio topic “if you had one player to start a franchise with, who would it be?”

From there, Rakuten set about building their team the traditional way, mostly building through the draft. There are enough words in this already, so let’s fast forward to 2013 and look at where the Eagles’ primary contributors came from (2013 acquisitions bolded):

Position Player Acquired
C Motohiro Shima 2006 draft, 3rd round
1B Ginji 2005 draft (high school), 3rd round
2B Kazuya Fujita 2012 mid-season trade from Baystars (Kensuke Uchimura)
3B Casey McGehee* 2012-2013 offseason MLB free agent
SS Kazuo Matsui 2010-2011 offseason MLB free agent
IF Tatsuro Iwasaki 2012-2013 offseason trade with Dragons (cash)
OF/C Takero Okajima 2011 draft, 4th round
OF/DH Andruw Jones 2012-2013 offseason MLB free agent
OF Ryo Hijirsawa 2007 draft, 4th round
OF Shintaro Masuda 2005 draft (high school), 3rd round
OF Teppei** 2005-2006 offseason trade with Dragons (cash)
SP Masahiro Tanaka*** 2006 draft (high school), 1st round
SP Takahiro Norimoto 2012 draft, 2nd round
SP Manabu Mima 2010 draft, 2nd round
SP Brandon Duckworth 2012 midseason acquisition from Red Sox
SP Kenji Tomura 2009 draft, 1st round
SP Wataru Karashima 2008 draft, 6th round
SP Satoshi Nagai 2006 draft, 1st round
RP Koji Aoyama 2005 draft, 3rd round
RP Darrell Rasner 2008-2009 offseason acquisition from Yankees (cash)
RP Takashi Saito 2012-2013 offseason MLB free agent
RP Kohei Hasebe 2007 draft, 1st round
RP Kenny Ray 2013 midseason acquisition from Mexican League
RP Norihito Kaneto 2012-2013 offseason trade from Yomiuri (cash)
RP Hiroshi Katayama 2005 draft (high school), 1st round
* Signed with the Marlins for 2014
** Traded to Orix for 2014
*** Has been posted to MLB for 2014 but not yet signed with a new team

The first thing that jumps out is the obvious divide between position players and pitchers Rakuten’s drafts. Rakuten has never used a first round pick on a position player, and has never developed a home-grown offensive star. 65 of the Eagles’ 97 home runs were provided by MLB free agent signees McGehee, Jones, and Matsui. The home-grown players are on-base types, at best.

Rakuten’s pitching staff was primarily acquired through the draft as well, mostly with earlier round picks. The Eagles mostly hit singles and doubles with their picks, but connected for a home run with Norimoto, and launched an epic grand slam with Tanaka. Beyond those two picks, the pitchers in this list are a bunch of singles and doubles. Hasebe finally broke out a bit in 2013, but still only provided 34.1 innings of relief work, and that’s the first sign he’s shown of coming anywhere close to his 1st round billing.

So does Rakuten have another championship-caliber roster in 2014? Maybe. Signing Kevin Youklis to replace the departing McGehee was a gutsy move, but Youk’ll have to be healthy to fill Casey’s shoes. And key offensive cogs Jones and Matsui are another year older.

The bigger departure, obviously, is Tanaka. Filling his shoes is obviously going to be impossible, but the Eagles might be able to claw back some of his competitive value with improved depth. Rakuten’s three and four starters were pretty mediocre (Mima, 4.12 ERA in 98.1 IP; Duckworth, 4.31 in 87.2). Maybe Travis Blackley shows up and pitches 150 innings of 3.50 ball. Maybe Satoshi Nagai bounces back toward his 2010 form (182.2 IP, 3.74). Perhaps lefty Takahiro Shiomi, who missed all of 2013, recovers and provides 100 IP. Or maybe wakawashi like Yoshinao Kamata and Yudai Mori chip in some value.

Or, even if none of that happens in 2014, at least the Eagles get to play the season as defending NPB champions. In their 55 years of existence, the Kintetsu Buffaloes never did.

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The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball

» 17 January 2014 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 4 Comments

“This isn’t because I wanted to play in the Majors at all costs. It’s just that I feel I can’t play for that manager (Keishi Suzuki), that’s all”

 

僕は、別にどうしてもメジャーでやりたかったわけじゃない。ただ、あの監督(鈴木)の下ではやれないと思った、それだけなんです」

Hideo Nomo, speaking about his decision to pursue an MLB career (source)

Nomo’s retirement and Suzuki’s insanity pre-dates my following of Japanese baseball, but I have read a little bit about Nomo and Suzuki. Suzuki’s treatment of Nomo was particularly grueling, including 191-pitch and 180-pitch starts, and comments like “to cure your pain, throw more.”

Nomo is rightfully credited as the player that opened the door for Japanese and Asian players in Major League Baseball. But he might not have done it Keishi Suzuki had been, you know, sane.

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1st Year Foreign Player Payscale

» 22 December 2013 » In nichibei, npb » 7 Comments

I get asked from time to time how much ball players make in Japan, particularly the foreign ones. With Kevin Youkilis becoming the latest bari bari Major Leaguer to venture to NPB, it seemed like a good time to publish this rough guideline.

This was part of a longer article, from my train commute ramblings, thats unfinished and kind of outdated, so the salaries don’t reflect what’s happened so far in the 2013-2014 offseason. That said, it’s still mostly accurate. “Mostly” is kind of a key word, because there is always going to be some variance from team to team, and with injury history and other factors. This is a basic framework.

Salary Range Profile Recent Examples
$3M+ MLB All-Star Experience Andruw Jones, Bryan LaHair, Vicente Padilla
$1M-3M a couple of complete seasons as an MLB regular, maybe a few years in the past; elite Korean players Casey McGehee, Jose Lopez, Nyjer Morgan, Dae-Ho Lee
$400k-1M “4A player”; fringe 40-man roster player, consistently strong performance in 3A; varying MLB experience; strong performance in Korea Daniel Cabrera, Ryan Spilborghs, Fred Lewis, Jason Dickson, John Bowker, Matt Clark, Brooks Conrad
$100k-300k 2A/3A experience, Taiwan, Mexico, US independent leagues, etc Michel Abreu, Orlando Roman, Jim Heuser
<$100k non-ikusei veteran; Japanese independent leagues; Carribean Winter Leagues; Italian League Alessandro Maestri, Enyelbert Soto
$25k-50k “ikusei” player; Dominican/Venezuelan Summer League; Japanese independent leagues Edgar Lara, Edison Barrios, Abner Abreu

For more on NPB payrolls, please see this post.

Update: If you’re new here, consider following me on Twitter: @npbtracker. I update my Twitter account more often than the website.

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Pitching: Here, There, Everywhere

» 20 December 2013 » In mlb, mlb prospects, npb » 5 Comments

Every time an NPB pitcher transitions to MLB, we see a number of projectsions for he might perform statistically. For me these projections are always a bit of a shot in the dark — there is just too much variance among too many factors to make a linear statistical project realistic.

The big, obvious difference for pitchers is simply that MLB hitters are better than NPB hitters. The best MLB hitters are better than the best NPB hitters, and the average MLB hitter is better than the average NPB hitter. But beyond that, there are a number of more subtle factors that make projections difficult. Here are the ones I can think of, from the perspective of NPB:

  • There are fewer legitimate power threats in Japan. Every lineup has at least couple of regulars who just don’t hit home runs.
  • On the other hand, there are rather few strikeout machines like Adam Dunn and Pedro Alvarez.
  • Japanese managers are still in the habit of regularly throwing away outs with sacrifice bunts.
  • Most Japanese ballparks have massive foul ground.
  • The NPB ball is slightly smaller and lighter than the MLB ball. I’ve also heard that it is a bit tackier than the MLB ball and easier for some pitchers to command.
  • Japanese starters, at least the good ones, go a bit deeper into games. 120 pitch starts are on the high end in MLB, but are not uncommon in Japan. Yu Darvish was no stranger to pitch counts in the 140’s in his NPB days.
  • NPB starters normally get six days between starts, which includes a weekly off day. Pitchers sometimes get in a rhythme of pitching on the same day each week. The most famous example of this was Lotte ace Choji Murata, who was nicknamed “Sunday Choji”.
  • NPB starters also stay home the day before their scheduled starts.
  • Playing in Japan requires less travel. All of Japan is in one time zone, and five of the 12 NPB teams are based in the vicinity of Tokyo.
  • NPB has 12 teams total, six in each league. Normally a starter will face each team in the opposite league once during interlegue play, and see the other five teams in his own league four of five times each. Most MLB starters will see a bigger variesty of lineups.

Stats are good, they just need to get filtered through all this stuff, plus whatever else I didn’t think to include. Ultimately the conclusion I’ve arrived at is that skills are translatable, but stats less so.

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A Conversation About the Posting System With My Brain

» 09 December 2013 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 6 Comments

So, Brain, the posting system is changing. Apparently the details are still being formalized, but the main changes are that the NPB chooses the posting fee, the $20m limit on fees, and the player’s right to negotiate with any team that makes the maximum bid. Thoughts?

Well, it looks like MLB is trying to save its teams from themselves. It feels like both of the proposals started from the point of MLB wanting to reduce posting fees without significantly increasing the Japanese team and player’s negotiating leverage. In that sense, NPB did a good job securing some new leverage for it’s players. Giving the players multiple MLB teams to negotiate with is a surprisingly player-friendly inclusion, which has been welcomed by a union that has so little come their way.

The real, immediate loser here is Rakuten — and any other NPB that intends to post a marquee player. For teams in that situation, the $20m limit is almost diabolical.

What do you mean by that?

In case like Masahiro Tanaka’s, the new posting system makes the deal significantly better for the player and significantly worse for the team. So the incentive for the player to go and for the team to hang on have both increased. I think this could drive a wedge between the player and team, which we’re kind of seeing with Tanaka and Rakuten right now.

But the highest posting fees were indeed astronomical.

Yeah, they were. There’s no denying that. But there have only really been two huge ones, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, who both clocked in at about $51m. Matsuzaka was a flop; Darvish is looking good so far. No one seems bothered by the $25m fee the Dodgers paid for Korean lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu last year, and the Yankees $26m bid for Kei Igawa seems to have been written off as a miscalculation, a knee-jerk reaction to the Red Sox’ acquisition of Matsuzaka. Then we have Ichiro at $14m way back in 2000, then Kazuhisa Ishii at $11m in 2001. All the other postings have been sub-$5m.

And let’s not forget that the MLB teams have set the market for big postings. People in Japan were shocked when Boston bid $51m for Matsuzaka, and later on, that was thought of as an outlier. The expectation was that Darvish would draw a bid of $30-40m. MLB teams have a knack for spending more than anyone expects.

People seem particularly annoyed by the $51m fee that Boston paid to Seibu for Daisuke Matsuzaka, and it’s understandable given his performance, but what gets overlooked is that it’s not unusual MLB teams transfer money to one another. No one batted an eye at Detroit including $30m in the recent Prince Fielder-Ian Kinsler trade. No one cared that Texas agreed to send the Yankees $67m to help them undo their A-Rod mistake either.

So this is really about one guy then.

Yeah, probably. If Masahiro Tanaka wasn’t perfectly positioned to command another $50m+ posting fee, I doubt anyone would be having this discussion, at least not right now. There’s no one else in NPB that immediately commands to mind as being that hot a commodity; the other elite players are a few years away. So this is really about preventing his price from getting out of hand. The smarter thing might have been for MLB to try to push this kind of change through last year, when there were no postings from NPB. Hyun-Jin Ryu was posted from KBO, but I have to assume that it would have been easier to sell KBO on a $20m limit.

Maybe that’s a good thing, right? What if he’s a bust?

That’s part of the risk that MLB front offices are paid to evaluate. There was no limit imposed on what MLB teams were allowed to spend on Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Jhonny Peralta…

Hang on. The luxury tax is a deterrent from going overboard on player salaries.

So prorate the posting fee over the term of the contract and apply it to the acquiring team’s luxury tax number. That way, at least the number comes from what the market is willing to pay, rather than a an artificial cap. The luxury tax is a deterrent, not a hard cap.

Yeah, I know they can’t do that because the MLB CBA is set in stone for the next couple years, but then so be it. MLB teams have made their beds, they can lie in them.

Why would NPB ownership agree to this?

Some of them don’t recognize the Posting System and refuse to use it. They don’t care if there’s a limit or not. I can only speculate as to why the others would go along with this… maybe they see it as something that won’t come into play very often, or maybe they see it as a disincentive to post their own players. Or maybe they just don’t want to face Tanaka next year.

No one seems to like the Posting System. Why does it exist?

It comes down to NPB teams needing to have a way to get something in return for players than are inevitably going to lose to MLB via free agency. Conceptually there is nothing wrong with this; in fact MLB clubs transfer players to Japanese teams for fees that range up to the low seven figures. Case in point, Softbank paid the Cubs $950k last year for Bryan LaHair’s contract.

What does it matter anyway?

From a practical standpoint, I don’t know, actually. Seibu invested the money they got from Matsuzaka into improvements to their home stadium, the Seibu Dome. Nippon Ham doesn’t seem to have re-invested their Darvish money back into their baseball operation in an obvious way. Perhaps there are more subtle ways that I haven’t picked up on.

In the bigger picture, a vibrant Japanese baseball culture and a financially healthy NPB is a very good thing for MLB and baseball in general, and limiting how much a team can benefit from developing a superstar player can’t possibly help.

There are two baseball leagues in world where a significant number of players earn over $1m annually — MLB and NPB (there might be a few guys in Korea by now). Having 42 organizations that employ baseball players is certainly better than having 30. If we include Korea’s 11 teams to the mix, it’s better to have 53 than 42.

Another thing is that part of the reason that Japan is a good market for MLB is because Japanese Major Leaguers bring huge fan followings with them. Guys like Darvish, Ichiro and Hideki Matsui were stars before they ever stepped on a Major League field. I don’t have the numbers on this, but I would assume that the market for MLB has grown many times over since Hideo Nomo braved the Pacific in 1995.

Thanks Brain.

No problem. I’m gonna go back to thinking about other things now.

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Guest Post: Two and Two are not Five

» 22 September 2013 » In nichibei, npb » 3 Comments

If you’ve followed Japanese baseball in English for any period of time, chances are you’ve encountered Michael Westbay’s work. Westbay-san is the founder of JapaneseBaseball.com, a columnist for Baseball Magazine, a video podcaster, and a general leader of the English-speaking Pro Yakyu online community. Many of the English language NPB bloggers, including me, started out as members of the JapaneseBaseball.com forums.

Part of the reason I started NPB Tracker was to combat misinformation about Japanese baseball in the American media. The confluence of the “juiced ball” scandal, Wladimir Balentien’s home run record, and the Masahiro Tanaka rumor mill is more than I have time to adequately ponder, much less write about… so when I saw Westbay-san’s lengthy post about the ball issue, I asked him if he’d be willing to turn his commentary into a post here. 


There has been a rash of articles coming out on CNN, ESPN, and other sites which are mashing together several news items coming out of Japan and either putting 2 and 2 together to get 5, or leading their readers to reach such a conclusion. What these mashup articles lack is context.

Let’s take this ESPN article as a prime example. The most insidious thing about this post is that everything mentioned in it, taken by itself, is true.

  • It is true that commissioner Ryozo Kato announced his retirement.
  • It is true that the league kept the switch to a livelier baseball a secret until June.
  • It is true that there has been a dramatic increase in home runs.
  • It is true that Kato is stepping down due to the ball scandal.
  • It is true that Wladimir Balentien broke Sadaharu Oh’s 49 year old home run record.
  • It is true that the commissioner claims to have never been informed of the ball change.
  • It is true that the player’s union called for his resignation when the issue came to light.
  • It is true that a third party is investigating the issue.
  • It is true that Kato will quit after the end of the regular season (although I have seen reports that have his last day potentially just before the start of the Nippon Series toward the end of October rather than October 6).

Now, one of the truths above is not like the others. Can you guess which one?

Here’s a hint, one commenter, Thomas Brennan, wrote, “This just screams of Nationalism. It’s fine. It’s their league and they can do what they want with it.”

In what way, shape, or form does this “scream of Nationalism”?

Oh, he put 2 and 2 together to get 5. The commissioner retires under the scandal of a livelier ball with Oh’s 49 year old record being broken by a foreigner, therefore everybody in Japan must be up in arms and calling for the commissioner’s head for allowing this to happen!

Others put 2 and 2 together to get that an asterisk needs to go next to the record.

Except nobody is calling for Kato’s head over the record. Nobody is suggesting an asterisk is needed. If there is anybody who thinks the record is due to the “livelier ball,” then he’s being shunned by everybody else as an ignorant idiot. And such idiots are not making public spectacles of themselves as it appears their North American counterparts are.

I’m perhaps being too harsh on the commenters, though. Giving a mish-mash of facts taken out of context like this, and a general ignorance of Japanese baseball other than the sensationalist mis-information that’s been floating around North America about Tuffy Rhodes’ and Alex Cabrera’s runs at the home run record, it’s not surprising that so many reach such a conclusion.

Now, let’s look at some context that this and every similar news article is missing.

As stated above, the “livelier baseball” and “dramatic increase in home runs” are both facts. But in the context of compared to the last two years.

In 2010, the year before moving to the Unified Ball, the Yomiuri Giants alone hit over 200 home runs. In 2004 they hit over 250. No single team is even close to projecting anywhere near 200 this season. Yes, the ball is livelier than the past two years. But nobody is claiming that is the reason for Balentien’s success. (There were some posters, such as “daclyde,” on a CNN thread who correctly pointed out how much Balentien has improved as a hitter while in Japan. This shows that there are some intelligent, well informed readers despite the poor execution of North American Journalists.)

The reason Kato-Commissioner is stepping down is not due to the home run record. The player’s union called for Kato’s resignation after his long insistence that the ball had not changed right up to the revelations that it was on June 12. With a livelier ball, players’ contract incentives, especially those for pitchers, were in jeopardy, and they did not have the opportunity to factor in a new ball during their contract negotiations.

What did the home run race look like on June 12?

Yokohama’s Tony Blanco had looked like he was going to run away with the Home Run Crown with 23 home runs in 58 of Yokohama’s 59 games played. But Balentien was closing in with 20 after playing in just 47 games, getting a late start to the season due to an injury during the WBC.

The June 13th, 2013 edition of Nikkan Sports had a table showing how the pace of home runs had changed since the introduction of the unified ball in 2011.  It featured both Japanese and foreign players. Some players not known for hitting home runs, like the Lions’ Takumi Kuriyama quadrupling his home runs per at bat compared to 2012. Balentien, who was the Home Run Title winner the previous two years, showed a steady, linear increase year to year. Hiroshima’s Brad Eldred, at that point, was actually hitting home runs at a lower pace compared to 2012. Tony Blanco, who led both leagues at the time, was not even mentioned in the table.

Kato’s resignation and Balentien’s home run record are not related. It’s poorly written articles like this, that mash together a bunch of facts as though there is some sort of causality, that really do a disservice to the baseball community.

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Ichiro & Me

» 27 August 2013 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » Comments Off on Ichiro & Me

Last week, Ichiro reached perhaps the capstone achievement of his career: 4000 career hits as a professional in NPB and MLB. This put me in kind of a refelective mood, as Ichiro has been an omnipresent figure in my observation of professional baseball over the last 16-17 years, and a central character in my development from someone who knew little about Japanese baseball to someone who is capable of writing competently about it. Here’s 950+ words about how it happened.

The offseason, 1996 — I saw Orix Blue Wave’s [1] Ichiro play for the first time, on TV, in the bi-annual Nichibei Yakyu All-Star Series that has since been rendered obsolete by the WBC. This particular series was notable as it featured Hideo Nomo, a Japanese player, representing the American side. I don’t remember much about that series, other than the broadcasters pointing out that Ichiro was thought of as the likely candidate to be the first position player to make the leap to MLB, which turned out to be a prescient expectation. Ichiro, with his distinctive high-kick swing and mononymous name, was implanted on my mind from then onward.

Winter, 1997 or 1998 — As an early eBay user, I was able buy a Japanese Nintendo 64 baseball game, King of Pro Yakyu[2]. I quickly learned to recognize the Orix Blue Wave logo, and the first Japanese phrase I learned to read was Ichiro. Or, more accurately, I could understand which series of characters read “Ichiro”, but I couldn’t tell you which one the “chi” was. Nonetheless, Orix was the only team I ever played with in that game and evenually I learned about So Taguchi, Koji Noda, Troy Neel and DJ.

At some point around this time, I discovered Michael Westbay’s JapaneseBaseball.com, simply by typing “japanesebaseball.com” into a browser to see if anything was there. It became an invaluable resource for me as time went on.

August 2000 — I set foot in Japan for the first time, to spend a semester as a foreign exchange student. As luck would have it, I found myself in the Kansai region, not far from Orix’s home in Kobe. As luck wouldn’t have it, Ichiro was injured, so I defaulted to mostly watching nationally televised Yomiuri games, becoming a fan of Hideki Matsui, Darrell May, Hideki Okajima and Akira Etoh[3]. Ichiro did eventually return to play in the final game of the season, which I saw on the news but not live. I had no idea that it would be Ichiro’s last game (to date) with Orix. A month or so later, Ichiro’s intent to move to MLB was announced and it was a huge news story.

By the time I returned to the States in December, Ichiro’s rights had been won by the Mariners. It kind of seemed like a predestined move, as Ichiro has spent some time with the Mariners during spring training in 1999, and the team is owned by Nintendo.

Spring 2001 — Back home, my Dad and I attended an early-season White Sox-Mariners game, during Ichiro’s first trip to Chicago. Ichiro went 3-6 and made at least one perfect throw back to home plate, but what I remember most about that game was the number of Japanese photographers stationed around Comiskey Park. We saw groups of three or so photographers in several spots around the stadium, capturing even the most mundane Ichiro moments from every possible angle.

Ichiro, of course, went on to win the MVP award and the Mariners had a historic regular season, but fell short in the playoffs. By the time they did, I had returned to Japan to begin my eikaiwa[4] job. Like everyone else in Japan I wanted to see Ichiro in the World Series, but I wasn’t disappointed by the terrific Yankees-Diamondbacks series. I figured the Mariners would get another shot, which wound up never happening.

September 2004 — Early in 2004, I relocated from Japan to San Francisco. Ichiro appeared to be somewhat in decline, as batting had tailed off a bit in 2003 and he had gotten off to a slow start in 2004. Then in May something clicked and Ichiro was locked in the rest of the season, particularly in July and August. By September it seemed clear that he was going to set the MLB record for most hits in a season, and it looked like he might do it during a four game series in Oakland during the last week of the season. Being semi-employed at the time, I had the free time to attend all four games that week, but Ichiro cooled off and wound up setting the record after the Mariners returned to Seattle.

10 years earlier Ichiro set the NPB record for most hits in a season with 210, so he held the single season hits record in both leagues, until Matt Murton broke his NPB record with 214 hits in 2010.

2008-2009 — For the next couple years, nothing much happened. Ichiro continued to rack up 200+ hits per year, but the Mariners were never really in contention for a playoff spot. I continued living in the Bay Area and reading Shukan Baseball[4], until 2008, when I started this blog, which both of you are reading right now. Two of my earliest attention-grabbing posts where Ichiro-related, or more specifically, Ichiro pitching related: Ichiro pitching in the 1996 NPB All-Star game, and again in preparation for the 2009 WBC. Certainly, I owe some portion of the audience I managed to build to the fascination with Ichiro.

[1] The Blue Wave name is now defuct. In 2004, the Orix Blue Wave merged with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and became the Orix Buffaloes.
[2] Atlus software’s clone of Konami’s Powerful Pro Yakyu. Here’s a clip.
[3] All but Etoh evetually played in the Major Leagues.
[4] Eikaiwa is a contraction of “Eigo kaiwa”, meaning “English Conversation”. It’s a job were a native English speaker teaches conversational skills a group of one to four students.

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Throwing On The Side

» 13 May 2013 » In nichibei, npb » 1 Comment

Changes are afoot in Japanese baseball. NPB brass met on May 13, and decided to phase out the practice of pitchers staying loose by playing catch in front of the dugout while their team is batting. The change is to take a effect following the All-Star break at ni-gun, and next season at ichi-gun.

The reason cited was to “comply with the rules of baseball”, but I see it as a move toward Westernization. In recent years we’ve sign the ban of ni-dan (two-stage) motions, a change to the American notation for balls and strikes (a full count used to be 2-3), and the introduction of a league standard ball, among other things. Most of these changes range from innocuous to good, but I wonder if they will eventually rob Pro Yakyu of a little of it’s character. And I miss the ni-dan motions.

In other news, the Central League asked for a reduction to the interleague schedule, to which the Pacific League responded with a vague “ongoing discussion”, or essentially death by bureaucracy. Neither league wants to give up valuable revenue-generating games with Yomiuri.

Finally, NPB announced that it’s investigating opening the 2014 with the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers in Southern California. This news has been out there for a while and it seems that enthusiasm for the idea is growing. A final decision on the idea is now expected in June. Veteran baseball writer Wayne Graczyk has more on the plan, in an article published in April.

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A Very Japanese Headline

» 01 May 2013 » In npb » 1 Comment

When reporting something that hasn’t happened in a while, the Japanese media has a habit of using the exact number of days since the last occurrence to underscore the point. Here’s today’s example:

Terahara’s First Win For Softbank in 2481 Days; Says to Local Fans “I’m Home!”

Original Japanese: 寺原2481日ぶりソフトBで白星 地元ファンに「ただいま!」

This headline refers to Hayato Terahara’s first win of the season; he returned to the Softbank Hawks as a free agent after having been traded away six years ago.

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